Happy Holidays

santa RI

Happy and Healthy Holidays!

Holidays can offer a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with friends and family, take a breather from our busy lives,  and hopefully take in the sights of winter around us, whether it appears in a vivid sunset, a sun-dappled trail or in a festively illuminated skyscraper.

With all the hype and anticipation of this “perfect time of year” so many of us are not exactly relishing the holidays. For one reason or another the hours spent with our biological families or those of our spouses and friends can be dicey affairs, especially when the undertones of conflict or sadness seep up to the surface and we notice an old resentment that never quite healed.

Our culture, usually bent on celebrating the joys of the season, doesn’t seem to provide much space for reflection, mindfulness and just plain nostalgia for what was or what might have been. Perhaps the best way we can honor our authentic selves is to give ourselves and each other time to experience the moments of clarity that the winter and its solstice can sometimes provide.

This is a great time to get indoors and “dig into reading”, as my favorite bookmark, depicting a squirrel nesting in a tree trunk with a great book, says. Play an old fashioned game with a few friends or take a walk by water. Here’s hoping you have a moment to connect with your own holiday spirt and when you’re ready, take a look towards the possibilities that the new year brings.


12 2015

Feeding yourself

Food, glorious food!  But is it?  The sight of pumpkin scones at Trader Joe’s or the smell of pumpkin coffee at Dunkin Donuts might lure us in for a purchase and “a treat”.  Remember, “You deserve a break today…at McDonald’s”?  Our brains get excited just thinking about the fun of eating that food that we might not have tasted for a while.  Oh, and while we’re there we might try the pumpkin waffles (they’re whole grain) and pumpkin butter to slather on for an extra seasonal celebration.

Heck, just reading the TJ’s circular about all the pumpkin products such as “This pumpkin walks into a bar”, makes me want to jump into my car and scoop up some yummy foods to celebrate the arrival of fall.   Once I get a bushel of treats at home, I try a bit of this, then that and just a little more of it before wrapping it up for the night.  Who care’s about the baked salmon with acorn squash and salad I had planned for dinner?  Then after the yummy tastes of fall I decide to skip the meal entirely.  Some time passes after a few loads of laundry or a session of helping a family member solve a pressing problem, and it’s time for another trip to the pantry and freezer, where the fun times live.

But wait.  I forgot to feed myself.  I certainly took care of the needs of my family.  Ditto the bottom line at TJ’s, Dunkin’s or some other corporate sponsor of fall feeding frenzy.  But have honestly taken care of my needs?  “Fed” myself actually?

What really feeds us when you stop and turn off the noise of the computer adds, the radio in the car with the jungles, the spam, the office treats?  Just how would you spend your day if you had no one to look after, time and money to burn, and good health and freedom in every way?

If we could nurture that quiet need that lives in each of us, we might discover a passion for reading, getting dirty in a flowerbed, or learning how to make something cool.  Or maybe we love travel, seeing glorious vistas, learning about exotic cultures or spying nature from a log near a path.

If we learned to honor our basic pleasures on a regular basis with consistency and dedication to creating the time and resources to see it through, the real meal might feed us more than ever.  And how would the artificially flavored pumpkin “treats” in the crinkly packages feel if we had a real choice for something grander?

How do you feed yourself?


10 2013

Mindfulness, Meditation and Therapy

photo copy 2So how are mindfulness, meditation and therapy related to nutrition?  I’ve just returned from an invigorating conference entitled Mediation and Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness with Thich Nhat Hanh, presented by the Harvard Medical School.  Let me try to convey the unusual experience of sitting with hundreds of therapists, psychiatrists, PCPs, nurses, nutritionists and other health professionals who showed up to learn how meditation and focused attention can be used to build new brain circuitry to make us healthier, happier and more joyful.

We sat and listened to practitioners who have been practicing meditation themselves for years and who have not only discovered positive effects in their own lives, but have developed treatments for helping their patients improve their health outcomes too.  Some of the practices that patients have been engaging in have helped them reach deeper insights into the source of their discomfort, while helping them heal suffering.  This process can lead to compassion, calm and even joy as the burden of anxiety, overcoming past trauma or medical illness can be momentarily lifted.

To make things more interesting we had the opportunity to observe seasoned therapists demonstrate how using mindfulness practice can be effective.  As if we were watching theater, we participants observed how using breathing skills and careful attention to suffering, can lift an individual out of a stuck place that seemed calcified.

Imagine if you will, hundreds of practitioners being led on a silent, mindful walk through Boston’s upscale Back Bay, with shops, tourists and all the business of a midday Wednesday, with taxis blaring, gawking onlookers and half-clad mannequins as a backdrop to our heightened awareness.

Observing our unfocused minds in action as we jump from one thought to random thought is reflected in our bodies, more specifically in our food choices and eating styles.  How often do we want whatever we happen to see or smell or finish food in no time flat when we are already comfortably full?  What would happen if we slowed down enough to tune into our feelings or bodily sensations as we truly smelled, tasted and chewed our meal?

The practice of mindfully being present as we walk, eat, wash the dishes or take time to observe the color or shape of a cloud can be a treat to the senses that might lead us to a new awareness.  If we opened up to this experience we could go a long way towards achieving our personal health and weight goals.  If we all began to notice our bodies, our physical space and how we experience ourselves and our surroundings, we might make different choices, we might consume less…and perhaps not just food, but all the rest.


09 2013

Journal of the American Dietetic Association August 2011

For the past two years I have been working with a team of seven colleagues writing and developing the new “Standards of Practice and Standards of Professional Performance for Registered Dietitians in Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders.”  The article was published in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (pp. 1242-9, volume 111, number 8).  You can preview the article here, though you will need to register to read the full text of the article.


08 2011

Finding Your Inspiration

Each of us is touched by at least one person who has mentored or inspired us to follow our passion.  If it were not for that person’s influence, life as we experience it, might have been altogether different.  Sometimes that influence comes at a time when we are vulnerable, perhaps after an especially challenging time.  At other times we learn most when our life seems invincible and creativity flows almost effortlessly.  Either way, learning and awakening of the spirit occurs when we open to the influence of mentors who can act as catalysts for change.

Since behavior change is what so many people are after when it comes to eating, why not take a look at how we learned best from those who have inspired us along the way?  Did you try becoming a vegetarian because of a family member or friend who inspired you to shift to plant-based food for health or sustainability reasons?  Or did you experience fresh, wholesome food when on a retreat and that experience motivated you to try growing vegetables and herbs to spark up your meals?

In my case, my mother inspired me with her compassion for humanity, her sense of wonder, and her positive nature;  I learned to appreciate examples of beauty and joy in real time.  Somehow I learned to open to the potential for growth through her brand of curiosity for people and what they could achieve, whether it was artistic expression or just getting beyond a rocky time.    

I am grateful to her for inspiring me to learn, grow and smile on life.


05 2011

David Kessler Discusses the Science Behind Overeating

Read the full interview here.  David Kessler, MD, former head of the FDA has come up with a compelling argument that lays much of the cultural problem of overeating at the feet of the food industry.  Here is an excerpt from the interview:

WSJ: Are we then all victims of subtle cravings whose genesis we’re doomed never to understand?

Dr. Kessler: This syndrome of conditioned hyper-eating, which is what this is — the loss of control in the face of highly palatable foods, lack of feeling full — is reward-based eating. Not all are equally susceptible. Those obese and overweight have a greater incidence. But even 20% of the healthy report occasional loss of control. You will find people for whom food doesn’t capture their interest, but it’s probably a small percentage of the population. For the rest of us, it’s a continuum. It’s not only conditioned behavior. It’s the learning and motivational circuits of the brain being captured. Is it nurture or nature? You expose children who are eating fat, sugar and salt all day. They’ve never been hungry a day in their lives. Once you lay down that neuro-circuitry, it’s there for life. The actual act of consumption isn’t as strong as anticipation. It’s the conditioning associated with a cue. Once you are cued and you’re activated, it amplifies the reward value. It torments you. You want it more.

Scary stuff, but I am convinced that the practice of mindfulness can be applied to overcoming the conditioning of our minds to hyper-eating.  Skill development and practice may not fully quiet our minds, but we can be taught to feed ourselves as we were designed to be fed, one bite at a time.


05 2009

Compulsion to Compassion



His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, participated in a conference organized by the Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance this weekend in Boston.  The hundreds of us who attended experienced his humor, insight and wisdom as he answered questions from some of the world’s most experienced psychotherapists, physicians, deans, scholars and healers about the many ways that meditation and the cultivation of compassion can influence mental health.  His Holiness engaged in discussions of how Buddhist teachings and practice can be useful in treating human suffering including trauma, illness and anxiety.   He shared a personal story of  surprise and disappointment when he, as a boy, tried to propagate a favorite flower by placing a cutting in soil.  After only a few days he examined the cutting, hoping to find a root system that had not yet emerged.  He had not developed the wisdom to give the time and nutrition required to grow a healthy new flower.  

And yet just the day before addressing those of us at the conference, he demonstrated his mastery of the skill that had eluded him in his youth when he planted a tree with great gusto in Harvard Yard.   The unique hybrid birch, bred by Harvard arborists from a blend of Asian and North American birches, meant to honor His Holiness and the role he has played as a thought leader across continents, was ceremoniously planted by Dalai Lama,  Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust and the deans of the divinity and education schools.   The Dalai Lama offered thanks and stated that the tree would likely outlast both them all, but would remind future generations of his visit.  He went on to encourage more than the symbolic turning over of a few light shovelfuls of dirt, but instead mindfully engaged in the work of planting and watering the tree with the wisdom he had cultivated over time.

As I took in the often surprising tales of risks and creative thinking that the thought leaders had utilized to incorporate aspects of Buddhist practice into their life’s work, I was encouraged and relieved.  Not only for my clients, who are continually weighing hope against self-doubt as they struggle to overcome medical problems often complicated by emotional challenges.   But the message of the our ability to change over time, on a cellular, biochemical and emotional level, gave me hope that each of us has the ability to self-nurture and grow new and stronger roots that may in turn bring the wisdom and compassion that have the potential to benefit others and possibly ourselves.


05 2009

Night Eating Patterns


My children had a favorite bedtime story about a certain frustrated pastry chef named Marcel,  who awaked every night to creep down to the palace kitchen where he baked and presumably ate sweet confections.    The king attributed the delectable desserts to the palace baker until one night, when the smells of the pastries drew the king to the kitchen, he discovered Marcel tasting his way through his very own cream puff confections.   Once Marcel was outed as the creator, he was handsomely rewarded and promoted to the royal pastry chef.

For those who struggle with night eating patterns, there is no positive reinforcement of their nocturnal behavior.  In fact for these individuals, night eating represents a loss of control and a behavior which they strive to overcome.  Recognized as early as 1955 by Dr. Albert Stunkard, Night Eating Syndrome (NES) has received increased attention by clinicians who treat eating disorders, yet many who suffer from NES are unaware of the syndrome or its treatments.

Night eating is often associated with mood disorders; those with night eating patterns scored higher for depression and had lower self esteem than controls.  They often report that they experience a worsening mood as the day wears on and that they turn to food for comfort or to help them sleep.

NES is characterized by eating the majority of one’s calories after dinner, but not all night eaters eat in the middle of the night.  Night eaters typically skip breakfast and don’t have an appetite until several hours into their day.  Their evening meals or the snacks after dinner tend towards high carbohydrate foods such as crackers, bread or sweets.   The night eating patterns persists several times per week and last for months, if not years and can lead to obesity, though this is not always the case.

Until recently researchers wondered about the biology of night eating patterns and they are beginning to get some answers.   One of the keys may lie in the neurotransmitter profiles of individuals with night eating patterns.  They don’t seem to derive the same pleasure from eating that others do, indicating that they may be suffering from more than guilt.  In fact, their brains may have a hard time getting an amino acid called tryptophan, which converts to seratonin, the so-called ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter.  These individuals may also have trouble making enough melatonin, another neurotransimtter that regulates sleep.

Nutritional management of night eating involves more than adding foods into the daylight hours, though that is often a first step.  Careful analysis of the eating and activity patterns, along with a thorough medical and psychosocial assessment can begin to unravel the clues to the fundamentals of the individual’s night eating patterns.   Not unlike other eating disorders, treatment may involve a team that includes physicians, therapists and nutritionists working side by side with an observant, if not always alert, night eater.


04 2009

Ultimate Challenge

Can you imagine ever considering any possible nutritional merits of lard?  Maybe not, but the Wall Street Journal reported that a new generation of “foodies” who strive to create the most delectable dishes have begun throwing decades old dietary recommendations aside to the dismay and disgust of unsuspecting diners.  Grandmothers who bake memorable pies and famous international chefs have long realized that using lard or even vegetable shortening such as Crisco can help to create taste sensations.  But the health recommendations of the past half-century have trained us to react with horror at the mere thought of eating saturated fat which seems to conjure up images of arteries clogging before we get to the third bite of pecan pie with a lard-based crust.

Before the advent of vegetable oils swept our television screens with Mazola and sunflowers, people in many agriculturally-based societies spread butter or lard on bread with gusto.  The bias against lard that has kept it away from our palates for decades apparently coincided with the introduction of Crisco a plant-based shortening in 1911.  Back in 1940 American consumed a record 14.4 pounds of lard per capita; but by 1997, American consumption of lard reached its lowest point, 2.9 pounds per capita.

Nutritionists warned against eating lard due to its saturated fat content, which turns out to be less than butter’s.  The big surprise is that lard provides more monounsaturated fats (the most favored fats of late) and a lot less polyunsaturated fats than vegetable oils, which are now linked to increased cancer risk.

I am not saying that I recommend lard with your morning oatmeal and raisins, but perhaps we could try to recognize at least a portion of the bias and cognitive distortions we bring to our everyday eating.  How much damage could one slice of sweet potato pie truly do if we applied the skills of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the psychotherapeutic approach that aims to modify our dysfunctional thoughts and emotions and behaviors through challenging our distorted beliefs?   Is it possible that the introduction of the ultimate challenge food might turn out to be healthy after all?


03 2009

Recognizing Binge Eating Disorder

For National Eating Disorders awareness week, I was interviewed on Fox News about America’s most common eating disorder—Binge Eating Disorder (BED). I explain some of the challenges that binge eaters face and outline the basics of treatment.


03 2009